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DeKalb delegation wants to focus on mental health care reform in the 2024 session

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DeKalb delegation wants to focus on mental health care reform in the 2024 session

Left to right: Reps. Omari Crawford, Mary Margaret Oliver, Saira Draper and Sens. Kim Jackson and Elena Parent attended an Oct. 24 town hall moderated by Axios reporter Thomas Wheatley. Photo by Anila Yoganathan

By Anila Yoganathan, contributor

DeKalb County, GA — DeKalb County legislators said mental health reform will be a priority for them in the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Mental health reform is one of several priorities senators and house representatives discussed at an Oct. 25 meeting held at Decatur Presbyterian Church.

Axios reporter Thomas Wheatley moderated the event and asked the legislators about several topics including education, health and public safety. State Sens. Elena Parent and Kim Jackson attended, along with Reps. Omari Crawford, Saira Draper, Becky Evans, and Mary Margaret Oliver.

Representatives hoped the Assembly can take care of unfinished business surrounding mental healthcare reform.

Last session, House Bill 520 which was meant to provide funding for mental health programs, passed in the House but did not make it through the Senate. The bill also drew protestors to the capital who chanted, “Heads on pikes!” due to their belief in conspiracy theories about the legislation.

The delegation says they will be using a different approach to the topic in the upcoming session.

“I think that what we’re going to see is all of the best of 520 taken and broken up into smaller sections, so that it will receive a little bit less attention,” Jackson said. “And that we can do the good work of continuing to expand mental health access, continuing to make sure that we take care of those who are the most marginalized, the most at risk, that we do that work without bringing out the people who literally chant, ‘heads on pikes.’” 

Oliver and Jackson are more hopeful for bipartisan support on mental health reform. Jackson believes there will be strong bipartisan support for adoption and foster care reform in Georgia, a policy she said the lieutenant governor is invested in.

The representatives also brought up policies they anticipate their Republican peers might bring that could be contentious. Among the controversial topics that will be discussed next year: tort reform, school choice, medication-induced abortions and discussions about gender in schools. There will also be a push to punish Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for her prosecution of former president Donald Trump for trying to overturn election results in Georgia. Republicans see the prosecution as politically motivated.

“I feel like my role in public safety is to always be playing defense and to stop bad bills,” Jackson said. “My colleagues in the senate are very committed to addressing the overpopulation of jails issue. Really, they just want to attack Fani Willis…but I want to hold their feet to their fire on that issue. One of the ways that we address overcrowding in jails is that we stop locking up people who don’t need to be locked up.”

Additionally, the DeKalb delegation members discussed the possibility of having to go into a special session this fall as they await a ruling on the court case about whether Republicans violated the Voting Rights Act when they redrew district maps, which marginalized the voting power of Black residents.

“If this court case says that the maps have to be redrawn, there is a distinct possibility that we will be called into a special session before the end of the year, during which the maps will be redrawn,” Draper said.

But, Draper added, the majority party will still be drawing the maps. Republicans hold the majority in the Assembly.

The delegation members discussed some of the other policies that they hope they can make progress on in the upcoming session. 

Draper wants to focus on a bill that would require Georgia State Patrol Officers to wear body cameras and if an individual is killed in an officer involved shooting, their next of kin would have access to the body camera footage within 24 hours. This is in response to the shooting of an activist on property slated for a police training center, dubbed cop city by critics. Georgia State Troopers fatally shot the protestor, Manuel Teran, after they claimed Teran fired at them. But Troopers aren’t required to wear body cameras.

Crawford wants to introduce legislation to protect kids in high school or younger from dating violence, noting that legislation has been in the works about dating violence as it pertains to adults. 

Evans said she wants to support school districts who have reached out with requests for funding for transportation, school safety programs and professional development. Evans also mentioned trying to get funding to aid in the housing crisis in the state.

And finally, the representatives hope they can gain some sort of ground on gun legislation.

“Today the most partisan issue, by far, in my opinion is gun safety. We get no decent discussion about gun safety,” Oliver said.

Crawford said that even on a local level, local governments are preempted by state law when it comes to regulating guns. The representatives said they hope this year, some sort of discussion can be had on the topic.

Draper brought up Johns Creek Representative Michelle Au’s gun storage safety bill that received a hearing during this year’s session, but the bill was not up for a vote. 

“The fact that they gave us a hearing even though there wasn’t a vote on it is promising,” Draper said. “But I’m really hoping that we could get an actual hearing on that. Very small, narrow, again, eminently reasonable bill this year. I don’t know if it will happen, but I think it would be the right thing to do and what Georgians want.”

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